Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Scottish Football in 'Interesting' Shock

"FIFA president Sepp Blatter has dismissed English Premiership leaders Chelsea's hopes of escaping their constrictive domestic surroundings and gaining access to the lucrative and intensely competitive Scottish Premierleague. Stamford Bridge Chief Executive Peter Kenyon has claimed that their club was being "choked" by the lack of competition in England and that regular trips to Pittodrie and Brockville were desperately needed in order for Chelsea to progress, while manager Jose Mourinho added yesterday "of course I'd love to pit my wits against George Burley and Gordon Strachan and try to challenge Hearts and Celtic next would be a dream for me". Blatter, however, has dampened any hopes the sleeping giants have of gaining access to the SPL millions........"

Sorry I was miles away there.....

The SPL table has a somewhat more sensible look on it this week, with Celtic and Rangers occupying two of the top three spots, but the dream is still very much alive at Tynecastle as Hearts astonishing 100% start to the season, their best in 91 years, continued with a single goal away win at Inverness, thus maintaining a five point lead in first.

The trip to the highlands was something of a litmus test for George Burley and the new owner Vladimir Romanov's Lithuanian revolution, being just the kind of difficult venue where points are generally hard wrought and challengers credentials must be presented wholeheartedly. Hearts departed not just with all three points, but also with the prize of being able to say "its a sign of a good team when you win without playing well", that perpetually handy explanation for a jammy win.

As much as last weekend's contest was a test for New Hearts, this Saturday sees the first genuine examination of their progress: namely the first meeting with one of the Old Firm, as Rangers come to visit. It has been something of a boon for Burley's side not to have had to meet either of the Glasgow giants until relatively late into the first cycle of fixtures, given the tumultuous player turnover that Hearts have experienced since the close of the last season. The most remarkable thing about Hearts' success thus far, however, has been the very fact of how quickly they have settled despite what must have been a far from settled summer.

The player to have settled the best is Czech striker Rudi Skacel, whose remarkable feat of scoring in seven consecutive league fixtures has made him an immediate cult figure in Gorgie. For all the impression made by Skacel and the other imports such as his fellow Czech, striker Roman Bednar, Greek European Championship winning left back Takis Fyssas, and Lithuanian Edgaras Jankauskas, crucial to Hearts' success so far has been the cornerstone provided by the Scottish quartet of Craig Gordon in goal, Steven Pressley and Andy Webster in central defence and Paul Hartley in midfield. It was hardly coincidental, but a happy stroke of fortune for Walter Smith, that Scotland's recent impressive World Cup qualifier performances transpired alongside Hearts' impressive start, given that this quartet perform the same roles for clulb and country.

Hartley's form is very much continuation of last season's, when he was nominated for the Player of the Year awards and was the subject of a January transfer bid from Parkhead. Hearts' wisdom in not accepting that offer is now sharply apparent, as Hartley has been an almost bionic figure for the Jambos so far. His energetic, goalscoring performances from midfield have made him the league's outstanding player so far, which is all the stranger when one considers the less than glittering trajectory of his career until now- his C.V. includes sojourns at Hamilton, Hibs, St. Johnstone, Morton, Raith Rovers and Millwall.

Whether Hartley's belated success will prove a metaphor for his club, who haven't won the league since 1960, remains to be seen. While Romanov has provided stability and funds, as well as luring a manager of Burley's standing, his desire to recruit players of his own choosing, which so far has been good-naturedly tolerated by the manager, could become an issue if Burley's authority is seen to be diminished. Additionally Hearts' squad remains thin in comparison to their Glasgow rivals'. However they are undoubtedly well placed to fulfil this season's aim of closing the gap and finishing third, and whether the three year plan to overhaul the Old Firm comes to fruition or not, the full houses down Gorgie way testify to a feel-good factor which has been long overdue in Scottish football.


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